Exclusive: The CIA’s covert war in Laos – in the 1950-60’s – has remained a model for U.S. proxy wars through today’s “war on terror,” but the forgotten lesson was the conflict’s destructive failure, recalls war correspondent Don North.
By Don North
In the first of many mistakes of the Vietnam War, President Dwight Eisenhower said in 1954, “You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over quickly.”
By January 1961, Eisenhower had warned his successor John F. Kennedy that Laos was the most pressing foreign policy issue in the world and he had initiated Operation Momentum in Laos, for the CIA to train and arm a small force of Hmong tribesmen to fight the communist Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese supporters.
But history would prove the “domino theory” in Southeast Asia was a misconception of tragic proportions. Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines would all confidently resist communist influence and would have surely have done so without the bloodbath of millions of deaths across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
As a young freelance journalist in 1965, I tried to cover the secret war in Laos. In the capital Vientiane, I encountered CIA pilots running supplies to the Hmong army in Long Chen and urged them, over many beers at the bar of the Continental Hotel, to take me along but without success.
Now, more than a half century later, author Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, has published a book, A Great Place to Have a War, based on recently declassified documents and interviews with major players behind the secret war in Laos.
He also analyzes how the conflict in Laos was the genesis of the CIA’s support for clandestine paramilitary operations around the world, a pattern that continues through today. He concludes that the strategy in Laos set a sinister precedent for American presidents to conduct war without congressional or media oversight.
Kurlantzick writes, “The Laos program would balloon in men and budget. It would grow into a massive undertaking run by CIA operatives. CIA leadership saw that an inexpensive proxy war could be a template for wars when U.S. presidents were looking for ways to continue the Cold War without going through Congress or committing ground troops. The CIA leadership thought that Laos was a great place to have a war.”
An army of hill tribes, mostly Hmong under the command of General Vang Pao, who initially led a ragged band of 5,000 guerrillas recruited and equipped by CIA officers. For 14 years, this irregular army fought the communists with Vang Pao’s guerrilla forces finally numbering 100,000 irregular troops.
Over those years, more bombs were dropped on Laos than were dropped on Japan and Germany during World War II. By the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, some 200,000 Laotians, both civilian and military had been killed, including at least 30,000 Hmong, with another 750,000 Laotians made homeless by the bombing. Some 700 Americans, mostly CIA officers, contractors and U.S. military also died in the Laos conflict, although those American deaths would not be revealed for decades.
Today, Laos is a failed country still strewn with landmines and other ordnance that take the limbs and lives of Laotians every day. Only 1 percent of the unexploded ordnance is believed to have been cleared and an estimated 20,000 Laotians have been killed or injured since the bombing ceased.
A Destructive Debacle
By most measures, the CIA’s war in Laos was a debacle that virtually destroyed a civilization. Plus, the war was “lost” from the U.S. government’s perspective when the country disappeared into the communist Vietnamese orbit. But by the CIA’s yardstick, it was a great success.
“In the opinion of many officers in the CIA Clandestine services, the paramilitary programs that the agency operated in Laos between 1963-71 were the most successful ever mounted,” according to a quote from newly declassified CIA records cited by author Kurlantzick. “Small in numbers of personnel and even smaller in relative dollar costs, the CIA Laos operations shone in contrast to the ponderous operations of the US military forces in Vietnam.”
CIA Director Richard Helms declared that the agency had proven itself in Laos and had tied down 70,000 North Vietnamese troops who might otherwise have fought Americans in Vietnam. Laos would become the template for a new type of large, secret war for decades to come.
In his book, Kurlantzick concentrates on four remarkable individuals who in partnership with the CIA would control the agency’s war in Laos. All four have died recently, but Kurlantzick interviewed three of them.
There was Bill Lair, an American veteran of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Division in World War II who joined the CIA in Bangkok to train Thai troops for a possible invasion by China. Lair, adept at the Thai and Lao languages, was later sent to Laos where he would become the first chief agent to deal with the Hmong warlord Vang Pao.
There was Vang Pao, who met Lair in January 1961 and promised that if Lair would provide weapons he would gather 10,000 men to be trained by the CIA. Vang Pao had a reputation of having a sharp mind but his rage, sadness and energy sometimes overtook his abilities and knowledge.
There was Ambassador William Sullivan, who took his post in Vientiane in 1964 and soon became the most powerful U.S. ambassador in the world, in charge of the secret war in Laos. Sullivan’s power encompassed far more than the usual duties of filing reports on the political situation and attending diplomatic receptions. He had a strong respect for the CIA, unlike many U.S. ambassadors.
Sullivan also had a close relationship with President Lyndon Johnson, which Sullivan felt gave him a free hand to run the war in Laos. Called to testify before Congress, Sullivan drew the ire of Sen. William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who complained: “We pretend Laos is a sovereign country. We are pretending we are not there? You are deceiving the American people and Congress.”
Sullivan, who didn’t mention that he had commanded nearly every aspect of the operation in Laos, later became National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s right-hand man at the Paris peace talks. (Sullivan was the only one of the four principals whom Kurlantzick did not interview.)
The fourth principal in the Laotian war was Tony Poe, who had experienced heavy combat with the U.S. Marines island-hopping across the Pacific during World War II. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Poe signed up to train Korean saboteurs. In 1961, Poe arrived in Laos to help train the Hmong who had become the center of Operation Momentum.
Poe was a hard-drinking combat trainer who sought opportunities to fight with the troops he had trained. He had a reputation of ruthlessness that included tales of cutting heads off North Vietnamese troops and dropping them from a helicopter. He is said to have shipped bags of ears cut from enemy soldiers to the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane.
In the mountains with his private army and drinking heavily, many of Poe’s colleagues believed he had gone mad. However, in 1975, Poe was awarded a second CIA intelligence medal for “extraordinary heroism.” It is believed Poe was the model for Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Col. Kurtz in the film “Apocalypse Now.”
The lessons from Laos had long-term effects on how the CIA would operate for years. After 1975, agents with Laos experience took over CIA stations all over the world and held senior jobs in agency headquarters. They brought with them a conviction the CIA could handle large-scale war fighting skills, reported Kurlantzick.
The secret war also had echoes up to the present. “The post-9/11 war on terror replicates the Laos war in other critical ways: CIA activities are totally unwatched by the public and the media. The strategies used to keep most of the war on terror secret … would have been completely familiar to the CIA operatives running the Laos war.”
In his last foreign trip, President Obama went to Laos, the first sitting U.S. president to ever do so. In a speech in Vientiane in September that got little notice back home, he offered no apologies, but pledged to increase funding for clearing unexploded bombs by $90 million over the next three years.
“Given our history here, the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal,” Obama said. “At the time the U.S. did not acknowledge America’s role. Even now, many Americans are not fully aware of this chapter in our history, and it’s important that we remember today.”
Kurlantzick didn’t complete the research and transcript for his book until October, before the election of Donald Trump as president, but in an article for the Washington Post’s Outlook section Jan. 22, he analyzed the new administration’s likely policy toward the CIA:
“The incoming President seems eager to cut some of the agency’s spies and analysts. Instead, power would flow to operatives in the field – those who help arm allied foreign military forces and manage drone strikes … the Trump administration is poised to accelerate a transformation that has been happening since the 1960’s, with the CIA becoming less focused on spying and more on paramilitary organizations with a central role in violent conflicts.”
The first secret counter-terrorism operation under Trump’s orders took place on Jan. 29 in Yemen against an “Al Qaeda affiliate” and appeared to have been a botched mission though the Trump administration hailed it as a success. It was reported to have been carried out by U.S. Special Operation Forces, with no mention of CIA participation.
A senior Navy Seal was killed during the raid and Yemeni officials reported 30 civilians also killed, mostly women and children. The New York Times said the civilian casualties triggered widespread anger across Yemen toward the U.S., adding to the tensions over President Trump’s entry ban on Yemeni citizens.
Kurlantzick’s A Great Place to Have a War could help Americans remember the chaos and destruction visited upon one of the world’s most primitive societies. Whether the book will influence the future history of America’s way of war remains to be seen.
Don North is a veteran war correspondent who covered the Vietnam War and many other conflicts around the world. He is the author of Inappropriate Conduct, the story of a World War II correspondent whose career was crushed by the intrigue he uncovered.
I have to say to make sure to check the numerous negative reviews of this book by what look to be some pretty credible sources.
The CIA is like a multi-headed hydra creature that is way more powerful than the American president. Obama was seduced by the CIA to wage illegal wars and all sorts of war crime acts across the world, from Libya to Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Tianjin in China.
The U.S destruction of Laos still needs more attention – http://legaciesofwar.org/resources/books-documents/legacies-of-war-cluster-bombs-in-laos/ The magnitude of the bombing is almost unfathomable, and hundreds of people still die in Laos each year from encountering unexploded ordinance from our criminal war – https://www.ft.com/content/dc65d1ae-74ef-11e6-b60a-de4532d5ea35
The importance of the drug trade in Laos to the CIA is another part of the story – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CIA_activities_in_Laos In terms of rebutting the Domino theory – it seems more sensible to focus on Vietnam – where the U.S. lost, it went “Communist” and that was a big “So what?” for the rest of World History, vs. say Indonesia where the CIA succeeded in it’s bloody coup/intervention helped support genocide or the Philippines where there is a long, long history of U.S. military influence.
Tragically our own congress is ignorant of our own dark history including the past 50 years. Is it any wonder then that our foreign policies are so screwed up? Just who runs this country anyway?
Dennis – I am not so sure that Congress is ignorant at all. I think they know exactly what is going on, but they are bought.
backwards — I think they are both ignorant and bought. Did you see Maxine Watters a few days ago going on about Russia taking over Korea. Of course, she meant Crimea, but what she said was ignorant for both Korea and Crimea. And she’s among the smarter members of congress!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
evelync, I don’t think you have to look much further than the Dulles brothers.
Sorry Bob, I posted my answer before I got down to yours. So we agree!
Like George Romney after him, not the brightest bean in the bin. Sorry to disabuse you
Where oh where did General Eisenhower get the idea that it was his job to approve secret violent intervention in foreign countries outside the scrutiny of the Congress and the American public.
He approved the Bay of Pigs too, I’ve read recently.
How on earth did he get bamboozled by Cold War thinking.
Maybe he thought better of it by the time he warned us of the MIC?
Did he come to understand that he’d been had?
Did he come to feel remorse for the havoc he/we wreaked on Southeast Asia?
He got the idea from the Dulles brothers.
evelync, “The Brothers” by Stephen Kinzer is a terrific read.
This brings back lots of memories. At the end of the Viet Nam war we sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family – from Laos. The husband had worked for the US embassy and was deemed “at risk” so a family of 5 was spirited out of the country with much hugger mugger. Not long after their arrival in my home town in Montana a large number of Hmung also arrived – basically what was left of General Vang Po’s army. Vang Po had selected Montana as a place to emigrate. (Later he moved to California ). The wonderful Hmung arrived with no language skills, and basically no western skills at all. They were an indigenous people who farmed by slash and burn, moving from place to place in the mountains of Laos. They spoke an ancient Chinese dialect which was unwritten until the 1920s when a missionary somehow wrote down the language and taught a few to read. Most Hmung could not read or write in any language.
I was a volunteer to teach a family english as a second language, and thus I came to know these wonderful people. How fast they learned english and to read and to count and to cope with our monetary system, and for the men to find jobs was astonishing – they learned to drive cars too, and passed both the written and actual driving test. Today many of these families are modern farmers in western Montana and are thriving. I am pleased at their success and devastated that we left so much destruction in their country and that we haven’t even bothered to clean up our messes – i.e. unexploded cluster bombs and other ordinance.
Once again I wonder what sort of ugly arrogance do we possess and pass on to our children that we continue to do this to so many countries?
ranney, by your actions, you are what we need more of, and not a covert CIA.
ranny, William Fulbright was mentioned in the original article and had some thoughts that pertain to your question, so I will offer the following paraphrase from an interview he gave after retirement:
The feeling that Americans have developed (through their rather unique history) of moral superiority is very pronounced, and a great handicap to our objectivity and dealing with other people….as if nobody else is good…One of the difficulties we have in dealing with other people, especially the Russians, but others, is that we give the impression we think we are better, we’re the only good people…
Fulbright went on to mention a remark of Khrushchev directed to the U.S. Senate, “We don’t ask for your approval, but that you at least recognize our existence.”
Don North – this is a fascinating, yet disturbing article! Thank you for posting it. It sounds like Trump doesn’t know what he’s getting into. He’s a builder, not a destroyer, so how could he? He’s used to submitting a building plan and then getting approval. This is a whole different ballgame, covert, secretive, and deadly. The plan here is to overthrow governments, manufacture crises, install puppet leaders, rob countries of their resources, and clear the way for western corporate interests. Hopefully someone can get to Trump and advise him about what’s really going on. Perhaps Tulsi Gabbard spelled it out for him.
Some say that people like Soros (who is paying protestors to protest, funneling money into organizations to fight government policy) and the MSM (who are publishing articles with lies, half-truths or omitting important details) could be compared to the above. Of course, they are not physically killing anybody, but they are working very hard in the hopes of killing a government.
It sounds like Trump doesn’t know what he’s getting into. He’s a builder, not a destroyer, so how could he?
A few weeks in the saddle with absolute power and Steve Bannon’s “advice” will take care of the necessary conversion. Last week’s catastrophe in Yemen was probably just Trump’s initiation into the club of criminals against humanity.
The operation was a success, but the patient died.
The method was better than the way that we lost the Vietnam War next door. Small boast.
“I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations. Some of the complications and embarrassment I think we have experienced are in part attributable to the fact that this quiet intelligence arm of the President has been so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue— and a subject for cold war enemy propaganda.”
Harry Truman afternoon edition op-ed in the Washington Post 12/22/63
read the whole op-ed here….
Joe, I want to thank you for the links you supplied yesterday in the “Castigating Trump” analysis. I have come here to this thread rather than there, perhaps mistakenly, in case that conversation (in the general comments) may be nearly ended.
One of your links took me to Voltaire Network, and I have just been reading an associated piece by the same French author, indicating a good deal about Trump I did not know. What was pointed out last week that Trump has an astonishing array of teams employed for the transition, with very detailed work on hand, and which I questioned as to how the Trump force could accomplish all this planning so quickly, now has more sense, given that this piece I reference below talks about Trump’s interests back to 01 and how the generals he has selected had different notions from the 03 program, and that is the program he essentially wants to un-do. This piece is dated Jan 24.
But what I want to talk about, and it seems to me you’re a good one to appeal to in this respect, is the difficulty we’re having in figuring out Trump, including how this Voltaire Network author is apparently very supportive of Trump on a high plane of ability to do what he said he wanted to do in his inaugural speech, and before that in December. That is, and why the war now between him and the neocons, the author maintains Trump plans to undo the last 69 years of foreign policy and the madness it has produced. I find myself mighty confused (including for example news of Eliot Abrams, a neocon, being considered for an appointment) and struggling to assess Trump, as to whether Thierry Meyssan is greatly over-rating Trump’s abilities and depth of vision, and whether the news we’re getting and responding to about the mayhem and contradictions from the Trump team indicates, indeed, as I have read today, the man is way out of his depth and essentially drowning, his behaviors indicating a cry for help.
We seem to be between these extremes, including to what extent Trump is being manipulated and led by what has been presented as a Machiavellian Bannon. Reports of Trump’s White House style, gleefully noted in the NY Times, suggest the man is not in control, and assessments that he is mentally unstable are also growing, including toward the he must be impeached sentiments, also now growing.
The question we’re bouncing back and forth in these opening weeks is which Trump is Trump? Voltaire Network’s Meyssan version, or the more popular version of the man as certainly intelligent but not of the type of intelligence needed to be the Kingpin behind undoing a neocon travesty of how to rule the globe, and “out of his depth”?
This question of course cannot be answered quickly, at three weeks into his taking the office. Trying to develop clarity on type A Trump versus type B (or C, D, E versions) is a wild ride at this time.
D5-5 I think Trump will need to be impeached so as to get our MSM back to their reporting all the ‘other’ news which is fit to print, or we citizen viewers will get even stupider than we already are of the world’s current events. Seriously, can you remember such a news blanket such as we now have covering but only one news character this much?
Now in the past certain huge news worthy events have taken over the news cycle for a few days, take for example; 911, Iraq invasion, or Michael Jackson’s sudden death, but even as my memory recalls the coverage of those historical events Trump’s presidency which is now about 22 days into it’s news cycle seems to have no end in sight of the attention it is receiving. I mean news broadcasting careers are now being made as our new President sends out Twitter messages damning Nordstroms for their cancellation to continue doing business with Ivanka….like CNN’s Don Lemmon’s rise to stardom.
Trump appears to be a pretty crafty guy, and I have learned never to under estimate his staying power, like during the election campaign…his ability to overcome the odds are what Vegas long shot high rollers dream of having put their money on. We could be richer than US Steel D5-5, if we were to bet against the odds of Trump’s success, but then we could die from a nervous breakdown while waiting for his results to be posted.
I’m leaning to an impeachment. My reasoning is not based upon Trump’s being able to survive the rigors of his new job at the White House, as much as I don’t trust anyone of those creeps who now surround him. If it’s true that Melania is refusing to move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, then this decision of hers possibly shows that Melania is truly the really smart one in the Trump family.
Is the Donald finally out of his league? Will we one day learn that Trump is a Manchurian candidate working for Twitter? By this time next year will Donald Trump be hold up in Moscow with Edward Snowden? Will Mike Pence be the new star of the Apprentice, and get to tell the Donald, ‘Your Fired’? What a Reality Show America has become, and you and I D5-5 are in it….extras maybe, but we never the less are still in it.
Joe, thanks for this reply and the one below. Much appreciation of your concern and your style. We will continue to observe. In case you missed it, this piece by David Stockman on Trump puts a lot of nails in what’s wrong with Trump, regardless of any “vision” he may have had, as expressed in his inaugural speech.
D5-5 I like Stockman for the most part, but where he suggest how we should revamp the Federsl Reseve with new blood, I believe we should destroy it entirely and put in it’s place a National Bank which would be owned by we the people. Thanks for the link, I enjoyed reading it. Take care it’s always good to hear what’s on your mine….Joe
Seems to me the CIA is a government unto itself and Congress can’, or is too scared to, do a damned thing about it!
Dennis, Ray McGovern wrote a great essay on the Truman op-Ed that I’m leaving a link to here…
In case you have already read Ray McGovern’s well written piece before then read it again, while you have the Truman op-Ed on your mind. Or don’t, because you don’t need me to tell you what to read, but in any case…yes the Truman Washington Post op-Ed written one month after the assassination of JFK to the day leaves a lot for an American to chew on…so why doesn’t anyone know about it?
To even begin to start a counter revolution of sorts to rein in America’s dark forces people need to become aware of all of what has gone on prior to this date in time. Like getting started with any rehabilitation the addict needs to accept full responsibility and own up to their failings. Possibly America should develope a Ten Step Program for itself to see if we can cure ourselves before we destroy the world, but seriously something needs to drastically change for the better…like NOW!
Like Trump or not it is evident that there are those who will hide in the dark to knee cap him at every turn, and make his term in office a short one….Amendment 25 section 4 equals President Mike Pence.
On another level Tony Cartalucci is reporting over at New Eastern Outlook to how the Trump Administration is sending the USS Cole into Yemen waters all alone, without an escort. This concerns me, because I see USS Liberty written all over this maneuver, and I hope between Trumps lack of military knowledge, coupled along with his own Cabinets independent thinkers who would like to bring Trump down, that these creeps don’t use the USS Cole as a provocative decoy to cause a ‘false flag’….war with Yemen anyone?
Since Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria seem to have the Syrian mess on the run, I think it prudent to keep our eyes on Yemen, because that’s where the next round of conflict seems to be heading.
Yeah, and the buck stops here Harry came to grips with his monster spy apparatus a little to late for when it would matter the most….but we are the exceptional and indispensable nation regardless of Harry’s late warning, as they always say to the poor America they have lied to at every turn.
Cartalucci article here….
Joe, I’m in shock because a long reply to you posted two hours ago has been deleted. It did contain a reference to the Voltaire Net author you linked to yesterday, and a piece he wrote on Jan 24. (Soon as I posted this my note to you came back on screen–is in moderation.)
Basically my point was, which Trump is Trump? Thierry Meyssan has a strongly positive view of Trump and his comments are extensive and well-presented. Version B of Trump right now indicates he’s a madman in his bathrobe folding to the pressures. I was hoping we could have a discussion of these alternating visions of Trump. The topic is much more important to me than the Meyssan link, but I fear it was that piece that took my comment out. Sorry to say this disturbs me quite a bit. I’m not sure I will continue here.
LETTER FROM THE CAPTIVE MUJAHID KHALID SHAIKH MOHAMMAD
The linked letter is 20 pages long, and I am still reading it myself…maybe I’m the last to know about this, but so far what I have read is interesting.
D5 I think whatever software consortiumnews is using, has some screwy algorithm and its performance has nothing to get paranoid over. Although I’m the one in our family who always attempts to start out thinking the glass is half full.
D5 I’m glad you caught on to why I posted the three articles I did (Madsen, Meyssan, and Harris). Out of the three I felt Harris wrote the most informative essay, but there again I think much of our accumulating a thought from all this variety of reporting, is determined to how you are wired. I mean it always kind of comes down to that left right brain thing anyway, doesn’t it?
At this moment, some twenty one days into the Trump presidency I’m finding myself overwhelmed by all of the attention that Trump is receiving. I have thought all along through out the long presidential campaign season, how if Trump were to win how America would become one huge reality tv based society with our first 24 hour televised presidency going on constantly all the time, day and night, and it is. Boy, even by the standards I had set in my imagination, the 24/7 micro reporting by our media going everything totally Donald has surpassed every marker I had guested it would hit, and we are just beginning to get started.
Is this much attention healthy for a divided American society? Okay maybe it’s me, and my family, but please know how in our family that all of us here have been doing many other things to keep busy. Brother in law in hospital must go there, important business meeting to attend, take sick puppy to vet now pulling on his dog toy, watching ‘Arrested Development’ season one episode ten laughed until I cried…..so why is this Trump avalanche weighting down so heavily on our little space?
Again, it’s probably only me. Although I’m starting to wonder that if Jesus were to come down at this very moment in time, along with a few galactic planet 0963x aliens and Mark Twain were to introduce them while they arrived at a Gate in JFK airport….would the media cover that, over a 3am Prez Donald Twitter?
America is officially now certifiable!
An informative article, that begs the question?
“Are We in the Hands of Gangsters Incorporated”?
This “legalized” killing in endless wars is aided, abetted, plotted and planned by “civilized” governments. Or to put it bluntly “regime change” is their objective….
They could also be called: “The Diabolical Destroyers of a Number of Countries”
[read more at links below]
In the mountains with his private army and drinking heavily, many of Poe’s colleagues believed he had gone mad
Obviously, Poe wasn’t the only actor in this appalling and poorly appreciated tragedy who had gone mad.
I would add that the entire purpose of “basic training” is to instill a type of insanity. They teach you to abandon any consideration of your individual responsibility for your murderous actions and make you a cog in a wheel of the great war machine. PTSD is the natural outcome once you experience the hell of war.